INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — Justin Herbert is in a rough patch for really the first time in his ascendant NFL career.
Back-to-back East Coast opponents with cagey veteran coaching staffs put him there.
The Chargers’ gifted second-year quarterback had a Halloween nightmare Sunday against Bill Belichick’s Patriots defense, going 18 of 35 for 223 yards with two TDs and two interceptions in Los Angeles’ 27-24 loss to New England.
Herbert was on his way to a career-low in yards passing and completion percentage before he threw for 80 yards on the Chargers’ desperate, last-minute scoring drive. It happened too late for Los Angeles to avoid its first losing skid under coach Brandon Staley.
“Offensively, it was a tough day out there,” Herbert said. “You can’t turn the ball over that many times and expect to win. … There are a lot of things we need to fix, for sure.”
Herbert also wasn’t sharp two weeks ago before the Chargers’ bye, going 22 of 39 for 195 yards in Los Angeles’ 34-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
The offense’s struggles against the Pats culminated on the play that probably decided the game early in the fourth quarter: Herbert made a quick throw to tight end Jared Cook, who wasn’t even looking for the ball. Former Chargers defensive back Adrian Phillips dived for the interception, got up untouched and scored the go-ahead touchdown with 10:11 to play.
Herbert and Staley both said the play was a simple miscommunication. It was symptomatic of a larger disconnect among Herbert, his receivers and his offensive line. None performed at an impressive level against Belichick’s schemes, or against the Ravens’ defense the last time out.
“In the passing game, we weren’t good enough today,” Staley said. “We didn’t protect the passer well enough today. We had far too many drops, and we didn’t play with great timing at times because of both of those things that were happening.”
The Patriots came out looking like they planned to play man-to-man coverage, only to drop repeatedly into a Cover 2 zone defense. They had rarely shown that look on film this season, but it was logical for a team struggling with injuries among its cornerbacks.
Herbert and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi quickly diagnosed the scheme, and Staley wanted the offense to move the ball patiently with checkdowns underneath. It happened occasionally, but not nearly often enough.
After Justin Jackson’s 75-yard run set up Keenan Allen’s 5-yard TD catch early in the second quarter, the Chargers’ next seven full drives didn’t reach the end zone. Largely due to the scheme, Herbert couldn’t get the Bolts’ other receivers involved: Mike Williams, Jalen Guyton and Joshua Palmer combined for just four receptions on eight targets.
Belichick’s defense was responsible for probably the least impressive game of Herbert’s career during the Bolts’ infamous 45-0 loss last year. That defeat sealed the fate of Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, who was fired despite winning the final four games.
Herbert went 26 of 53 for 209 yards with two interceptions in that blowout humiliation. Herbert shrugged off the Patriots’ connection between two of his worst games, saying: “It’s just the NFL. Every team you’re going to play is tough.”
Yet Herbert has completed more than 50% of his throws in every one of his NFL appearances except last season against New England, and he was below 50% this Sunday until the Chargers’ desperate final drive.
The Bolts aren’t profoundly frustrated yet. Back-to-back losses have captured the full attention of a team that scored 105 points in its previous three games before this mini-slump.
Allen, who acknowledged a key drop in the second half, said the issues were all the Chargers.
“I didn’t see anything that they did that we didn’t understand what was going on,” Allen said. “I didn’t think any of it was anything. We thought it was going to be man (coverage). They’ve been running man on film. We came out, it was zone. We knew they was going to do that, because they can’t cover us. That’s what they did.”